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Ever since I moved to the island in the winter of 2014, I’ve been fascinated with its shifting and changing, a symbol of the instability of even human geographer. Originally a sand bar created from deposits of sediment at the Scarborough Bluffs and Don River, it initially changed shape with every season and storm, until it was infilled in the 1930s to its currently fixed form.

But Gibraltar Point, as I’ve explored on this blog and in my first post on Spacing Toronto, is the last bit of wild, shifting island. And it is eroding fast. The above GIF is a thirty year period, and if you look closely at the Island’s southwest, you can see the land slowly receding.

I wrote about the current situation in the Globe and Mail, and had the chance to speak with several island characters including Jimmy Jones who grew up on the Island when it was fully inhabited, Warren Hoselton, the head of Parks and Recreation for the Island, long-time visitor artist Shoshanah McKay, and Ethan Griesbach, a project manager with Toronto Region Conservation Authority. Read it here.

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This post originally appeared on Spacing Toronto

Plan of York Surveyed and Drawn by Lieut. Phillpotts, Royal Engineers. Map courtesy Library and Archives Canada and accessed from http://oldtorontomaps.blogspot.ca/

While gazing over old maps of Toronto, I often long to experience the city before its landscape was so significantly altered. What was it like when the water went right up to Front Street, before infill extended the shoreline by almost a kilometre? How did the Lower Don River feel when it meandered into a vast marshland at its mouth, before it was straightened and channelized?

That’s why I was so excited to visit Long Point last week. A sandy peninsula protruding into Lake Erie, Long Point feels like going back in time to an earlier version of Toronto Island — when it was a wild, sandy and ever-changing spit still connected to the mainland.

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As Lake Erie shares Lake Ontario’s crumbly shoreline, Long Point is the result of almost the same geologic phenomenon that created Toronto Island — eroded sediment swept by the currents of the lake to create a sandy peninsula and protected bay. The most notable difference is size. While Toronto Island was originally a 9km spit, Long Point is about 40 km.

Unlike Toronto Island after 1858, Long Point is still connected to the mainland. It briefly enjoyed island status after a powerful storm in the 19th century severed a channel through its middle, but was reconnected when sediment washed back to fill the gap. The same would have probably happened in Toronto if there weren’t so much interest in maintaining the Eastern Gap, giving ships easy access to Toronto’s deep harbour and the markets beyond.

Long Point on Lake Erie. Image courtesy of canmaps.com

Beyond its tentative connection to the mainland, Long Point’s form has not been significantly altered by human activity. Whereas Toronto Island was largely fixed by depression era infill projects transforming its ever-changing fingers of sand and marsh into the archipelago of islands we know today, Long Point has maintained its fluid form as a constantly shifting (and hard to map) sand bar.

Compared to the few patches of forest along Toronto Island, Long Point is a vast wilderness. Designated a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, most of the peninsula is conserved explicitly by the Federal Government and Parks Ontario, and inadvertently by the Long Point Company, a private organization that has maintained the spit for hunting purposes since 1866, strictly limiting public access.

Walking along Long Point’s sandy beaches, you don’t even have to squint your eyes to imagine the feeling of Toronto before it was urbanized. An overgrown Carolinian forest hugs its sandy shore, and beyond the bay, where in Toronto a hulking skyline has emerged, there remains open water, marshland and sky. Port Rowan, tucked into the corner where Long Point meets the mainland has a population of about 1000 – the size of the similarly positioned town of York around 1812.

Long Point marshes. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Toronto Bay, 1793 by Elizabeth Simcoe

Long Point boasts its own community stretching the first few kilometres of the peninsula, offering a living image of another era of Toronto Island’s history: when it was covered in cottages and fully serviced by hotels, grocery stores, laundromats and restaurants. Like Centre Island before its town centre was demolished by Metro Toronto in the 1950s and 60s, Long Point’s year round population of 450 swells to 5,000 in the summer.

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Many of the cottages that dot the peninsula are reminiscent of the homes that used to cover the Island and those that were saved at Ward’s and Algonquin Islands. Built right up to the beach, their plain geometry bespeaks the simple pleasures of living lakeside, where all you need is a place to rest your head before heading back to the beach. A few grander cottages evoke the summer homes of the wealthy that were built along Toronto Island’s Lakeshore Avenue.

Despite never having been to Long Point before last week, the feeling of familiarity and connection to Toronto Island was uncanny. Of course, Long Point and Toronto Island are distinct places with their own histories, and comparing them requires a a stretch of geographic imagination. However, a visit to the largely preserved landscape at Long Point offers a portal into the past, its equivalent in Toronto having been changed beyond recognition long ago.

Originally posted on Spacing Toronto

Facing each other across Spadina Avenue just north of Adelaide, the Tower and Balfour Buildings frame a striking entryway into Toronto’s Fashion District.

Previously known as the Garment District, the neighbourhood was home to many of Toronto’s textile workers, who were predominantly Jewish immigrants.

Masterpieces of Art Deco architecture, the Balfour and Tower buildings were originally built to house those garment businesses and their showrooms, raising the prominence of the industry, and the city with it.

Designed by Benjamin Brown in the late 1920s, their towering elegance was symbolic of Toronto’s transformation into a modern metropolis — a financial, cultural and transportation hub with a swelling population over 200 000.

That elegance extended to several other Brown-designed buildings nearby including The Commodore on Adelaide, The New Textile Building on Richmond (now an OCADU building) and the Hermant Building at Yonge and Dundas Square.

Despite defining the city at a critical point in its history, Benjamin Brown has remained relatively unknown.

At a time when people weren’t interested in Toronto’s architectural history, let alone the work of a single architect, Brown’s entire collection of drawings were forgotten about in the architect’s garage and left to deteriorate.

When Brown died, he left the collection to fellow architect Jim Levine, one of the only people who recognized the value of the work.

The Ontario Jewish Archives took over the collection in the 80s and has painstakingly restored it, ensuring that a valuable archive of drawings that document the emerging modernity of Toronto was not lost. Highlights of the collection are now on view in an exhibit of Benjamin Brown’s work at the Urbanspace Gallery on the ground floor of 401 Richmond, until April 23.

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The exhibit is an opportunity to get an up-close view of Benjamin Brown’s expertly executed hand-drawn plans and renderings. Brown was a master of lines. His incredibly detailed drawings even include the buildings’ ornamental windows and decorative stonework.

Brown’s drawings are also poignant portraits of Toronto in the 1920s and 30s, where the aerodynamic shapes and sleek lines of Art Deco and Art Moderne dominated architecture and fashion. In the rendering of the Tower Building, Spadina is bustling with crowds in stylish coats as streamline automobiles motor by.

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Brown was one of the first Jewish architects to build and sustain a successful practice in Toronto despite the discrimination within the city in the early 1900s. As a result, he was the architect of many spaces for the Jewish community, including Beth Jacob Synagogue (today, a Russian Orthodox Church) and the Primrose Club on Willcocks, a social club for Jewish men (today, it’s the University of Toronto’s faculty club).

As an artist and urban geographer, I was delighted to participate in the exhibit by illustrating many of Brown’s best known buildings, tracing over his lines and creating a map showing the geographic expansiveness of his life’s work. Indeed, Benjamin Brown has hundreds of commissions spread throughout the city.

CommMy illustration of the Commodore Building on Adelaide. Unlike Benjamin Brown, I didn’t use a ruler!

Looking at Toronto through the lens of a single architect is an opportunity to make connections between the city’s disparate neighbourhoods and styles. Benjamin Brown’s designs range from the Art Deco towers downtown to utilitarian garages in the west end, storefronts on Bloor and Georgian, Tudor and Colonial Revival houses in midtown.

Through the work of Benjamin Brown, an intelligible thread runs through Toronto, a city indebted to the grandeur he helped established at the turn of the twentieth century.

See the exhibit of Benjamin Brown’s work at the Urbanspace Gallery on the ground floor of 401 Richmond, now until April 23.

 

This post originally appeared on Spacing Toronto

With the L Tower nearing completion, Toronto’s horizon has been pierced by another iconic skyscraper. The L Tower’s semicircular form is instantly recognizable, joining the CN Tower as a structure that will further distinguish Toronto’s famous skyline.

The L Tower’s shape could be interpreted in so many ways, making me wonder why we don’t nickname more buildings in this city.

The Cheesegrater and the Gherkin playfully loom side by side in the City of London

In London, UK, any building that looks remotely like something else is instantlynicknamed. Most famously, there’s the Gherkin (officially the Swiss Re building), and even before completion, the Leadenhall Building has been dubbed the Cheesegrater. The Shard was formerly the London Bridge Tower until criticism that it was “a shard of glass through the heart of historic London” caught on and the name was officially changed. Closer to home we have the Marilyn Monroe buildings in Mississauga. Distracted by their curves, few call these towers by their official moniker, Absolute World.

Beyond providing a memorable shorthand, nicknaming towers brings a playful sensibility to the cityscape, personalizing these hulking masses of steel and glass. The process of collectively naming a tower can bring a sense of ownership over the city to its residents, even with a development process that seems like it’s out of our control.

The iconic forms of Toronto's skyline. Photo by Victor Razgaitis, from UrbanToronto.ca

With the L Tower almost finished, Toronto has a chance to bestow our very own unconventional building with a nickname. (The L Tower is sort of a nickname, but it derives from the first iteration of its design which included a perpendicular podium, making a giant L.)  So, what should we call it? The Swoop? How about the Swoosh? Or the Scoop? The Shark Fin? Or is the L Tower a good enough nickname?

And, without going too far, why stop there. We could call Scotia Plaza the Zipper, the TD Canada Trust Tower could be the Wedding Cake. The Ritz Carlton… the Exacto Knife? What else do you suggest?

Towers in Toronto

Leading image by Sam Javanrouh 

This post originally appeared on Spacing Toronto

A few weeks ago I biked over to The Guild park. Known for its collection of modern Toronto “ruins”, a bonus to visiting the park is its unobstructed view of Lake Ontario. Gazing from cliffs high above the water, far from the distractions of the Bluffs or the skyline, and without the Island and Leslie Spit interrupting the horizon, all that can be seen from the Guild’s vantage is sparkling and limitless blue.

It’s moments like this, high above the water along Scarborough’s cliffs, that confirm it for me. Calling this enormous body of water a Lake doesn’t do it justice. Lake Ontario — it’s a Sea.

When I was showing a friend from Sweden around Toronto last Winter, she looked over Lake Ontario and kept casually calling it “the sea”. In Swedish, sjörefers to both lakes and seas, so she wasn’t technically wrong. The roots of most Germanic languages make no distinction between lakes and seas, and it turns out, among today’s oceanographers, there is no accepted definition of sea.

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A German edition of an atlas map by French mapmaker Jacques-Nicolas Bellin from 1757, from The Historical Atlas of Toronto by Derek Hayes

The same goes for lakes. Though definitions vary, lake often refers to a small, inland body of water. And the way we use it, a lake suggests waters that are knowable, safe and domesticated — calm waters that you can dip your feet in at the cottage.

I know it’s just a matter of language, and may seem trivial. But the language we use says a lot about our relationship with the world, and Toronto could use some help reinvigorating its relationship with the vast body of water along its southern edge. Calling it a lake has made us forget about the water in our ideas of Toronto’s identity and geography. If we started calling it the Sea of Ontario, however, we would be acknowledging the water’s power and mystery, launching it into prominence in our civic mythology.

Over in the Middle-East, the Sea of Galilee is technically a lake. But its importance in the history and mythology of Western civilization transforms this tiny patch of fresh water into a Sea in our minds – a body of water with enough stories and myths that its worthy of its name. (For comparison, The Sea of Galilee is 166 km squared, whereas Lake Ontario is more than 18 000 km squared!)

Stormy Lake Ontario has been known to wreck ships

 Stormy Lake Ontario has been known to wreck ships

Of course, Lake Ontario has its own share of stories and myth. Though a “lake”, this body of water is a powerful force, as mighty as any sea. When stormy, its waves have battered boats and taken lives. Last March, the TRCA hosted Lake Ontario Evenings: Hidden Secrets of the Lake. The audience regaled in tales of Lake Ontario from geographers, historians and marine archaeologists. We learnt of shipwrecks from the War of 1812, and how Robert Ballard, an oceanographer of Titanic fame came to explore a pair of sunken boats, the Hamilton and Scourge. We learnt about the HMS Toronto, wrecked off the shores of Gibraltar Point in 1811, and the Monarch, which sank in 1866 off Ward’s Beach.

Throughout the evening, as the Lake Ontario experts shared secrets of the Lake, they kept accidentally calling it a sea.

The waters have brought trouble to more recent ships as well. I recently encountered a boat mechanic who worked on the short-lived ferry connection between Toronto and Rochester. Its failure is often explained as financial, but the mechanic told me that wasn’t the whole story. Apparently the catamaran, designed by an Australian company for ocean journeys in the South Pacific, couldn’t handle Lake Ontario’s waves. The powerful waters lead to mechanic failure, adding to the cost of operation. The ferry is now in Denmark after briefly doing service between Tarifa, Spain and Tangiers, Morocco, where it sailed passed the other Gibraltar Point.

Though the Great Lakes are often referred to collectively as inland seas, individually, they are rarely given the sea treatment. By taking cues from its size, its stories, and its scope, calling Lake Ontario a sea would elevate its status in the minds of Torontonians, enabling us to embrace our identity as a City by the Sea.